The Avengers is a triumph not of filmmaking or even entertainment, but logistics. Before the movie was even out, the single most widely bruited thing about it was the mere fact that it was being made—that someone had managed to corral several disparate comic-movie franchises under one roof and give them a single film to play together in. When people refer to a given movie as an “entertainment machine”, The Avengers might well serve as the textbook reference example. It entertains, but only in the sense that they got the bear to dance.
Perhaps they couldn’t risk doing anything more than that, given how much money was at stake. That and the fact that the film is a sequel of sorts to not just one movie but several at once: Iron Mans I and II (of which only the first one was worth any salt); the Incredible Hulk, which didn’t even retain its star; the half-a-great-movie of Thor; and the remarkably inspired Captain America: The First Avenger. There are good movies in that mix, and at least two great ones, but what made any one of them great had little to do with its presence in the continuity of a franchise. Iron Man was a lightning-in-a-bottle experience, where most of the free-floating alchemy of the film was transmuted through Robert Downey, Jr.’s performance. And Captain America, again, made good more on the strength of its central performance than because of the exact story it was telling, a story which was essentially a lead-in to this one.
So if the main appeal of these films has been the personalities on display, then perhaps the best thing to do with a movie that features all of them is … just put their personalities on display? And so The Avengers dumps all of these characters into the pinball machine of the movie’s plot, lets them carom off each other, and also lets them smack into the drop targets and bumpers provided by the movie’s chief villain and his henchmen. But when the emphasis is on personality rather than character, let alone story, it means that even when Manhattan is defended by a gang of heroes against being leveled by an alien army coming through an extradimensional wormhole controlled by an artifact of astounding power, it feels like the only things at stake are everyone’s dignity and pride, and not the lives of billions or the future of a world.
Maybe it’s par for the course for a superhero movie to have more than a dram of narcissism, though, and much of the point of The Avengers is to get two kinds of superhero—the rank narcissists and the more selfless types—to play nice with each other under the watchful eye of a stern father figure. Said father figure, the one-eyed Nick Fury (a remarkably restrained Samuel L. Jackson), presides over the super-secretive S.H.I.E.L.D., whose mission has been to tap into and harness all things superheroic—whether they consist of the heroes themselves or simply the things such heroes would be inclined to play with. Their attention is currently being lionized by the Tesseract—the extradimensional MacGuffin last seen at the end of Captain America. After some tinkering, it pops open a space-time warp and brings in the Asgardian trickster, Loki (Tom Huddleston, last seen in Thor). Loki makes off with both the Tesseract and a few of Fury’s men, and now Fury has to assemble a team to stop him, Seven Samurai-style.
“Assemble” isn’t the right word; “kitbash” might be better. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is apparently too high on his success as a self-made superhero to commit to anything larger than himself, but one glimpse of the Tesseract and he’s reminded of the unresolved aspects of his father’s legacy. Captain America (Chris Evans) has been itching for a mission, and he’s grateful to get one, even if it means dealing with a world he’s almost too weirded out by to feel like it’s worth saving. Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has gone into hiding after “the other guy” (read: the Hulk) made a mess, but his expertise with gamma radiation makes him the go-to guy to figure out where the Tesseract has gone. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) drops in uninivited, but sticks around if only because his background with Loki and that giant hammer of his both come in handy. And Black Widow a/k/a Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) (martial artist, spy) and Clint Barlow a/k/a Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) (archer, gizmos) are also stirred into the mix, with the former being the one to lead Banner back into the fold, and the latter being one of Loki’s mind-twisted victims for much of the running time.
This is a lot of plot for a two-hour-and-twenty-minute film, or at least a lot of moving parts to keep track of, but again, the movie runs mainly on personality, not plotting. And it gets a remarkable amount of mileage out of the disparate personalities it mixes into the film: it’s great fun to watch the palette of characters at work here, all locking horns, sometimes literally. One character I realized was more subtly woven through the movie than it first seemed was Fury’s S.H.I.E.L.D. cohort, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), a buttoned-down Bob Newhart type whose mid-mannered reactions to the most absurd of goings-on provide some of the best moments here. He gets time with most every one of the heroes, and turns out to be a closet Captain America fanboy—something which becomes a way for Fury to motivate the rest of the team both indirectly and underhandedly.
Where the movie steps wrong, I think, is not that it tries to put together such a large team, or because the results aren’t fun to watch (they are), but because so much of the drama revolves around, again, mere changes in attitude rather than actual evolution of character. All the allegedly big emotional moments in the story, with one exception (hint: it involves Colson), seem flippant rather than resonant. And by the time the team is actually a team, it’s in name only, since the heroes’ biggest enemies up until them have been their own competing egos. It makes the real bad guys in the story seem like red herrings. Actually, they are: Loki turns out to have a glass jaw (the fastest way to snap someone out of Loki’s mind control is to clobber them over the head), the alien armada that Loki brings in to invade Manhattan is little more than a mindless horde to be picked off video-game style, and even Stark’s big selfless act at the end involving a nuclear weapon feels more like a Screenwriting 102 checkpoint rather than anything hard-won. It’s perfunctory, not transcendent. There just isn’t enough dramatic steam in this particular engine to make it do more than huff and puff, and the last third of the film in particular is all wind. Gorgeously choreographed and photographed wind, but wind all the same.
Big-budget event films have become almost exclusively vehicles for comic book properties. They make the fans happy, because they’re finally getting to see their favorite heroes ‘n villains kick the hot sauce out of each other on the big screen; they make mainstream audiences happy, because they provide a relatively novel way to deliver action and adventure (you can only have a lone cop saving the White House from being blown up so many times before the idea gets stale); and they make studios happy, because such properties are a safe bet and return good solid bank—and thanks to merchandising, they do so often even before the film hits theaters. But the bigger the movie, the more unadventurous its themes and conceits have to be—and so, paradoxically, the movies that seem like they should be the most daring and wild are among the least.
The real problem with The Avengers is how it's set the bar for pop filmmaking at the level of one proof-of-concept job after another. The mere fact the film got made isn't by itself enough to give it staying power. And worse, a whole flood of very expensive future projects of the same ilk are being hustled in front of cameras as I write this. E.g., Guardians of the Galaxy, where again the mere fact of it being made is apparently its biggest redeeming factor. But that by itself isn't going to be enough to win back what is ostensibly a massive production budget, outside of the very small and very loud fandom for the source material. It's what The Avengers represents that makes me far uneasier than anything the film itself is: a kind of big, loud, expensive filmmaking where the fact that the bear dances is the sole attraction. Fine: they've proven the bear can dance, at least this once. Now what?